03. A.M. War
04. We Are
05. The Refusal
09. Sky Machine
11. The Last Few
With their brilliant sophomore effort, Sound Awake, which was released all the way back in 2009, Karnivool proved themselves to be one of the world’s pre-eminent prog rock bands, capturing the imagination of audiences across the globe with that album’s beautifully melodic vocal and guitar lures and its emotively progressive tapestries, as well as suggesting themselves to be a band of near unmatched potential. Accordingly, it is unsurprising that since that time, the anticipation of what Karnivool might produce with their next offering has been steadily growing, as has the impatience of those eager to re-join the band’s exploration of its musical identity. However, such exploration takes time, and thus it is after four long years that Karnivool have now finally returned with Asymmetry, an album that is not only by far their most challenging work to date, but one that may also be their most accomplished.
From its outset, it is clear that Asymmetry is a very different beast to its much feted predecessor, in that it not only lacks the immediately engaging hooks that drew many people to Karnivool in the first place, but has also been recorded upon the basis of a very different production paradigm; one that has forsaken the familiar clarity of Forrester Savell’s work, that was so emblematic of the Karnivool sound, in favour of a much rawer and confronting sonic framework, including what are pretty close to live drums, courtesy of the renowned Nick DiDia.
Furthermore, whereas Karnivool’s music has always been precisely articulated and meticulous in its cohesion, the songs in Asymmetry’s opening stanza, and in particular, ‘A M War’ and ‘The Refusal’, are almost mathy in their manic dissonance, perhaps with ‘Set Fire to the Hive’ as their starting point, but with each instrument pulling in its own chaotic rhythmic or harmonic direction, and as if the band was channelling some kind of cross-pollinated The Dillinger Escape Plan/The Mars Volta hybrid.
At the same time, after the apparent lyrical optimism of the first main track, ‘Naschach’ (which is Hebrew for ‘learn by experience’), the lyrical themes adopted by Ian Kenny become darker and more pessimistic than has been heard from him before, and seem to be suggesting not only that there is something fundamentally wrong in our world, but that we are on the brink of some inevitable Armageddon. This darkness reaches its nadir in ‘We Are,’ as he sings,
“I know there’s something wrong // Disease has left a foul taste in our cup // Who we are, I fear, most of the time // And it stings, hurts!”
the pain of which is palpable, and so dramatically represented by the poor father in the song’s film clip when he realises that his daughters have disappeared.
Moreover, whether it’s merely the result of DiDia’s production, or perhaps the profundity of the lyrics themselves, they certainly seem more audible and pronounced than those on Sound Awake, and to therefore carry a greater weight of meaning.
Whatever the reason behind the resonance of these lyrics, the result of their intersection with the previously described music is to cause within the listener a sense of unease and discomfort, and culminates in the title track which, firstly, earmarks the half-way point of the album, and secondly, is itself an arguably asymmetrical piece, in that it combines incongruous samples and rumbling guitars to create a soundscape that is both disorientating and unsettling.
However, while the first half of the album is notable for its chaotic darkness, closer examination reveals that the band may have also identified that the key to its eventual enlightenment might be found in the innocent open-mindedness of children, who are described in ‘The Refusal’ as “young fruit, still not bruised”, and are clearly afforded a special significance in the ‘We Are’ film clip, which seems to hint at the notion that the disappeared children have been selected for some special task.
That task could well be the rebuilding, transformation and ultimate salvation of the human race, but irrespective of whether this theory is an accurate one, it is clear from the very first notes of ‘Eidolon’ (which is ancient Greek for ‘spirit image’) that some sort of threshold has been breached, as from this point onwards the music is suddenly cleaner, more whimsical and melodic, with the band employing primarily major keys and discarding dissonance for harmony, and the instruments suddenly working together to create a welcome sense of hope and inspiration.
Other than ‘The Last Few’, the songs in the second half of the album are also noticeably slower and less layered than anything we’ve heard from Karnivool previously, and whereas Sound Awake brimmed with impetus and the urgency of adolescence, by this stage of Asymmetry, the band appears to have matured musically to the point that they are comfortable sitting on the back of a groove, and embracing moments of stillness, peaceful reflection and quiet beauty.
The final track, ‘Om’, even abandons metered rhythm altogether as it transports the listener to a place of final rest on the back of philosopher Gerald Heard’s famous account of the wondrous insights experienced by minds opened by LSD, and decorated by the shimmering notes of a piano.
And so as Kenny declares during ‘Eidolon’ and ‘Sky Machine’ that “I dared to free my mind”, and, “We have crossed the line with an open mind”, we realise that what we were listening to in the first half of the album was the band’s own catharsis – their metamorphosis, if you will – through which they have stripped themselves back to their most authentic character as a band, and offered us as listeners, in the album’s second half, the privilege of a window directly into their collective soul.
Asymmetry is not Sound Awake, but it is one of the very best albums you are likely to hear this year, and if you allow the band to open your mind, just as they have opened theirs, hopefully you will think so too.
Karnivool – Asymmetry gets…